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Handling Caregiver Guilt in a Healthy Way

You know you’re a bonafide, card-carrying caregiver when you feel the guilt.

Whether it’s the guilt over transitioning Mom or Dad out of the home to assisted living or the nursing home, or taking away the car, you know you’ve been christened a caregiver when you come down with the sudden case of the "guilts."

But guilt is a natural and an expected emotion when you’re dealing with a high stress situation like elder care, according to social workers at Beechwood Homes and The Bristol Home, two of the member providers of LeadingAge Western New York..

There’s a place for guilt in our lives, but definitely not the unhealthy kind, the kind that gnaws at you constantly, causes too many sleepless nights and gets in the way of you helping your aging loved ones. According to Kelly Crisp and Sarah Labarbera, social workers at Beechwood Homes, “healthy guilt allows you the opportunity to reflect on past decisions and improve the decisions you make in the future. However, destructive guilt holds you in the past and wears you down.”

Come to terms with the fact that caregiving in any form is one of the most difficult tasks you may face in your life. You’re making important decisions for people you love, and this in itself can be emotionally and physically draining.

“Recognize that you are doing the best you can, and remind yourself of this,” say Crisp and Labarbera. “This can go a long way in alleviating guilt.”

Megan Diehl of The Bristol Home recommends that caregivers educate themselves about the role of caregiving as well as the medical issues that may have prompted your involvement, such as a chronic disease.

“If you know what you are up against and what to expect, you are more likely to avoid feelings of guilt later on,” says Diehl. “One of the most common expressions of guilt is, ‘I wish I could have done more to make Mom better.’ But, for example, if you know what the aging process is all about and the progression of your loved one’s particular disease or condition, you may avoid those thoughts.”

Here are some additional tips from Diehl, Crisp and Labarbera:

–In order to care for your loved one, you must care for yourself first.  This may mean accepting that you cannot provide care for your loved one any longer at home.   Making the decision for long-term placement is a difficult one but may be the most responsible decision you can make for your loved one.

–Feeling guilty about your decisions made on behalf of aging loved ones is very common.  You’re not alone! Many others have traveled this road. Remember that just because you feel guilty, it does not mean you did something wrong.   Have the confidence to believe in your choices. 

–A caregiver must know and accept their limits.  Knowing when to say no can stop burnout before it happens. Be honest with yourself and recognize what you can realistically do yourself, and what you will need help with.  Asking for help does not mean you are failing; it means you are being honest and realistic about the situation at hand.

–Do not dwell on the choices you made in the past.  Focus on the present and what you can do to improve the quality of life for your loved one and yourself.

–Don’t allow family members to make you feel guilty regarding the choices you need to make for your loved one. 

–Plan ahead legally and financially as much as possible to avoid headaches later. See assistance from legal and accounting professionals before you make key decisions in these areas.

–Join a support group, or seek support through organizations like the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association or your county’s Office for the Aging.

In the world of caregiving, there is no such thing as a straight A student. Try to avoid the trap of being superwoman or superman in dealing with the overwhelming duties of caregiving. According to senior editor Paula Spencer in her article, Aging and Caring: The Secret Guilt of Caregivers, “Guilt loves high standards. News flash: Nobody’s perfect. No caregiver anticipates every fall or bedsore ... Bills slip through unpaid. Life happens, no matter how much you love the person or how much you feel you ‘owe’ him or her.”